WNBA Players to Avoid Russia in the Offseason

Nearly a dozen players are forgoing millions for their own safety, and to help bring Brittney Griner home.

WNBA Players to Avoid Russia in the Offseason
Photo:Maddie Meyer/Getty Images (Getty Images)

On Monday night, the Las Vegas Aces brought home the 2022 WNBA championship, defeating the Connecticut Sun in the finals. But before the Aces’ A’ja Wilson ever got a chance to down her Four Lokos during Tuesday’s celebratory parade, discussions about the overseas offseason—and where players might be safe in the wake of Brittney Griner’s wrongful detention—had already begun.

Because fellow WNBA star Griner is still locked up in Russia, and due to the instability stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, close to a dozen WNBA players are forgoing million-dollar salaries to play elsewhere this winter, according to the Associated Press.

It’s been seven months since Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, was first detained at a Russian airport on drug possession charges. Russian authorities alleged the player was carrying vape cartridges with traces of hash oil. In August, Griner’s criminal trial concluded, and she was sentenced to nine years in prison for smuggling illegal substances into the country, though experts have maintained Griner was likely just used as a political pawn to give Russia leverage. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, spoke to President Joe Biden in the Oval Office last week regarding Brittney’s status and was assured that she is “at front of mind” by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre confirmed that a “substantial offer is on the table” and that the U.S. has urged Russia to accept the deal.

In years past, a handful of high-profile WNBA players, like Griner, have selected Russia’s Ekaterinburg team as their preferred offseason home due to salaries often over $1 million (much more than their WNBA salaries), ample resources, and team amenities. Ekaterinburg has also won five EuroLeague titles in the past eight years and has attracted past star talent like DeLisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi. WNBA stars like Breanna Stewart, a Seattle Storm forward who made a semifinals appearance this year; Jonquel Jones, the Connecticut Sun forward who propelled her team to championship victory; and Courtney Vandersloot, point guard for the Chicago Sky, have all played in Russia and made millions in past seasons. None are returning this year.

“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” said Stewart, who played alongside Griner for Ekaterinburg. “I think that, you know, now, people want to go overseas and if the money is not much different, they want to be in a better place.”

This year, Stewart and Jones are headed instead to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe, where they’ll each make a maximum of a few hundred thousand dollars—significantly less than their Russian salaries. Vandersloot is set to play in Hungary, and Rhyne Howard, the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year, is playing her first overseas offseason in Italy, a decision she told the AP she considered with caution.

“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and made such strong relationships with those people, I would never close the door on that,” Vandersloot said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is making efforts to incentivize players to stay in the US, claiming that top players could make up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing agreements, and award bonuses, according to the AP. About a dozen have taken the league up on its marketing agreements for the offseason. Either way, it’s an impossible situation for WNBA players—many of whom are women of color and/or queer—who are forced to settle for less financial stability in exchange for their safety and peace of mind.

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